A friend of mine asked me the other day what it's like for me to read books as an editor. Is it possible to turn off the editor's switch, even for my old favorites? Can I even give Stephen King (my favorite writer) a pass for the occasional laborious sentence, lagging plot line, or adverb when I've all but trained my brain to "search and destroy" these things when possible in people's manuscripts? The answers here are not simple. In the question of whether or not I can turn off the editor's switch when I read for pleasure, the answer is no. I've never been able to disable that particular feature of my brain, which is why I guess I'm well-suited to be an editor in the first place. Unfortunately, it does make me an incredibly s..l..o..w reader, at least compared to some. Unless it's a very light read (like Harry Potter), I tend to take an average of 2 weeks to finish a long book (if I'm only reading before bed). The act of reading and editing is almost synesthetic for me, in that I can not only "hear" the words in my head, but I can also taste them. Good words taste like really smooth milk chocolate. Bad words taste like copper shavings. Those senses have only sharpened more since officially donning the editor's cap.
But that doesn't mean I don't still take pleasure from reading. While I sometimes wish my brain would quit flagging instances of passive voice in an otherwise great novel or finding more economical ways to express something that someone wrote 30 years ago, it's a valuable feature to have when you come across some prose or a description that exhibits the genius that made that author successful in the first place. In fact, such discoveries not only make me exuberant, but they also fuel my desire to create. And those discoveries happen far more often than the "I'd have done this differently" ones, thankfully. Either way, it keeps my mind sharp.
Reading for pleasure must not die with the job of editing anymore than it can for writing. After all, performing an edit is a lot more than dotting i's and repairing comma splices. It's a job similar to that of a record producer, only instead of manipulating tracks of music to produce a coherent and pleasing sound, you're manipulating words to the same end. And you can't do something like that very well if you don't have a deep pool of other material from which to draw your knowledge and inspiration. If you want to go beyond the objective world of a copywriter and into the more artistic realm of line editing, you have to read a lot more than the manuscripts people send to you.
And you have to read more than just your prefered genre--fiction and non-fiction. Having a library card or a used bookstore nearby makes this easier. It's also not a bad idea to watch a lot of movies. The mediums are different, but they are great for providing visual context. On my sidebar here, you will see my We Read gadget, which shows you the current books in my reading queue. I just finished Watership Down by Richard Adams, and I'm currently working on The Red Tent by Anita Diamant. These are two vastly different books. One is an adventure tale about a group of anthropomorphized rabbits, and the other is the proto-feministic story of Dinah (from the Bible's book of Genesis), and her life as a midwife and daughter of Jacob. Both books could not be more different, and yet they share a similar thread of beautiful and great storytelling, and I've learned a lot from both that I hope to apply to my abilities as a writer as well as my knowledge as an editor.
The saying is old, but it's more true now (especially for me) than it ever was: Reading is Fundamental. Especially if you want to build your life on words. It might not be the relaxing exercise that it is for a lot of people who don't think about a lot of the intracies and nuances of the language, but it never has been simple for me. If anything, all of the voracious reading I've done from age 9 or so (when I started reading novels) up to now and beyond has been laying the groundwork for what I am doing now: editing your stories and writing my own.